Through the Bath Water

April -June 2012

Do you put your head under the bath water?
What can you hear under the bath water?
Do you remember putting their head under the bath water?

After a series of work called Through Walls, Through You – BEAM Festival – 2012, commissioned me to make a sound artwork called Through the Bath Water. The installation involved the public, listening to sounds over and under the bathwater.


Listening to bathwater at BEAM Festival

It involved actively getting into an empty bath, and putting on headphones. Through the headphones listeners heard the sounds of the bath water running and on tilting their head back to a certain angle heard the sound of the water running but from under the water.

Try each headphone ear separately to compare sound

Listening to bathwater at BEAM Festival

Sound artist Mike Blow put together an Arduino and Max Patch that ran in conjunction with the two sound files (of over and of under the water) such that when the head phones were tilted back the sensor on the Arduino got the Max Patch to play the other sound file.


Headphones with tilt sensor sewn inside and Arduino

Max Patch

The contrasting sound of the change from over to under water reminded the listener of their own experience of: perhaps bathing as a child, plunging their heads under water to rinsing their hair of shampoo or just playing about.

You may wonder why any one would get in this bath, but the setting was inadvertently enticing: the bath was placed in a grey corridor near an outside door, with a bath mat requesting you politely to take off your shoes. I did wonder if the mat should say ’get in!’ but people did get in and by the expression on their faces they enjoyed the experience of the situation – shoes off and all!


Listening to the bathwater at BEAM Festival

I was interested in connecting the listener with their own past experiences of hearing sound through differing materials, and the sounds being at different speeds connecting them to the underlying laws of physics that we all experience daily.

To do this I focused on one element: the sound. Rather than create or fabricate the whole bath experience and distract the listeners’ senses with:
• the vibration of the tap water running in, which could be done with transducers on the side of the bath,
• or the heat of the water on the skin – which also could be created,

I chose to concentrate on the sound to make the point of the comparison between the sound heard in air and water. I didn’t want to distract the audience from the sounds with other experiences.


Mics set to record in the bathroom

I set up mics in a bathroom, with a pair of AKG200 and a hydrophone recording simultaneously into the Edirol 44. I wanted to experiment and see what sound was like heard under water. I tried different things:

• putting the radio on,
• having people come in and say things,
• waiting till there was a racket out side the window,
• humming in the room loudly and then softly.

I found that as soon as there was some different element to follow other than the bath water, there became a narrative. This narrative, which was fun to conceive and create then over rode the focus on the sound itself and its behaviour, so I kept to the sound of the bath water.


Hydrophone in the bath

Sound travels faster through water than it does through air (Approximately 1482 mp/s in water as opposed to 344mp/s in air depending on the quality of both.

The hydrophone under water sound, does not replicate the behaviour of our human ears listening under water. This brought up further questions about the way other mammals and fish ‘hear’ under water. I wondered if I needed to adjust the EQ on the recording to suggest it was listened to under water. I put a small amount of reverb on the over water sound to make a contrast with the under water sound.
Here was an interesting question –“ how much if any intervention could or should I consider making?’

Last year I was lucky enough to catch the tour Wet Sounds by Joel Cahen, where we listened under water to the sound tracks played under water. Have a look here: It brought up questions about how ears react under water to sound and how fish and marine mammals hear sound under water?

By making sure we could set up the max patch tilt for tilting forward and backward, this meant the listeners could put the head phones either way round.
There was positive feed back from the ‘bathers’, but a larger number of them requested that if next time if the bath could be bigger, it would be easier to slide down to hear the under water sounds.

• ‘Wet’
• ‘I do love a relaxing bath.’
• ‘It gives the experience of being a fish as you can still breathe under water.’
• ‘Taking my shoes off made me slow down…..’
• ‘Would a shower curtain change the experience?’
• ‘Great Thanks’
• ‘Thought I might feel naked in the bathe!’
• ‘Didn’t like staying in being watched.’
• ‘Would be interesting to hear voices and other sounds as well – live water?’
• ‘Refreshing – enjoyed this.’
• ‘How effected are the sounds? As sounds too loud in the phones make it seemed recorded.’
• ‘I actually cried when I heard the test version of this, as I can’t go under water with my ear problem.’
• ‘How relaxed are you? (is one?) Can you measure it?’
• ‘Adjust the headphones so it doesn’t matter which way round you when you put on them on. The tilt goes both ways’.
• ‘Had some sense that there was the materiality of the water there.
• ‘I like the encapsulation – physically inside the bath and physically inside the phones. The environment was framed by the bath. It felt further closed up when listening to the under water sound. So re-meaning: isolated aural environment then further – so sound source an analogy.’
• ‘How about smoothing the change. Between the two sounds – merging them together.’
• ‘The bath’s a bit short to get the tilt back. When you are small- a child – baths are bigger and you usually put your head under.’
• ‘Made me laugh – much appreciated.’


‘Under’ the bath water…



Over and Under Water – Over and Under Ground

February 2012

Earlier in 2012 I set up, at Oxford Brookes University, an installation in a studio showing two films. I was interested to see if the films would draw attention to our own usually subconscious reading of time, sound and distance, and if the combination of hearing the sound from the two films would emphasise this.


Two screens

The DVDs used a 5.1 sound system to enable the two soundtracks.

One film was shot in Bristol docks and one in a street in Oxford. These two looped digital recordings each had two soundtracks recorded in those places: in Bristol above and below water and in Oxford above and below ground.

The screen showing Bristol Docks

If you chose to look at the docks scene (a view of Bristol Docks) you could either hear the sound above the water or the sound below the water on head phones. The sound from the boats could be heard on the hydrophone under water as well as above the water.

Try each ear separately on the headphones to compare sound
[audio:|titles=boat in docks]

[audio:|titles=paddle in docks]

Equipment on pontoon

I used a hydrophone for the under water recordings and a long-range stereo rifle mic recording into a Fostex digital recorder. The hydrophone is about 1.5m depth off the end of the pontoon .

If you chose to look at the road scene (a road outside Oxford) you could hear the sound above the road or sounds under the road in the ground.

Screen showing street scene and pedestrian

When you heard the footsteps on the path and saw the person making them,
the sound of the impact of the step of the walkers below the ground (or cars or bikes), contrasted with those picked up on the mics above ground, due to the different speeds at which sound travels through ground and air.

Try each ear separately on the headphones to compare sound
[audio:|titles=street scene]

I used a pair mics (Rode NTG2) recording the over ground sound into an Edirol 44 digital recorder, and for the under ground sounds I ran the a geophone – SM24 -into a battery operated sound system in my car and recorded from another digital recorder from the subwoofer. To boost the geophones signal I had a preamp and 3000W car amp and 15” sub.

Equipment to amplify sound from the ground

At the front of the car, not shown here, was a pair of mics recording over ground sounds by the front wing mirrors.

Below is the scene from the end of the docks, when I made the recording, where I could hear the diesel engines of the different boats before they rounded the corner into view. I wondered if I could show this and the viewer would understand that the sound in the water was travelling faster than the sound in the air.

Recording on the docks

At the time, and for both films, there were practical difficulties cueing the equipment to sync up the sound and film, getting permissions from the public when they came into shot and getting good sound levels. All of which led me to think that this would be a work in progress exercise rather than a finished product.

I had feedback from the discussion group:

• ‘…intrigued at the under ground sounds…’

• ‘…surprised at the high frequency of the under water sounds.’

• ‘I was distracted by trying to work out where the mics were recording the sounds.’

• Would you film the hydrophone and geophone? Would you film the cameras filming the shot to showing where different sounds were coming from?

• ‘Sounds heard beyond the visual field (of the film) were confusing.’
Trying to narrow the shot and the view of the source of the sound, did not allow
the listener to understand where the mics were picking up the sound.

• ‘The films are so different: one panoramic and one almost domestic.’
On the whole the viewers trying to compare sounds and distances found the
two scenes and techniques offered a complex set of visual information.

• ‘The camera on the tripod is totally different to the hand held one, where there is a different narrative.’

• ‘The two films needed to be presented together to get the contrast and only one film would be less than half of the presentation.’

• ‘Having a close up of the water’, and ‘ a shot of the geophone down a hole,’
it was suggested, would ‘help to give an impression of sound coming from under
water and under ground’.

Earlier on decisions were made about the presentation of the sounds the themselves, and ideas like putting them on speakers placed up high and down low, and only having the ‘under’ sounds on headphones – were tested. The whole exercise did generate ideas about how to direct listeners to listen to specific sounds.

Viewer listening with two pairs of headphones

Filming and recording where time, sound and distance are key showed me some of the complexities of trying to portray the idea of ‘seeing sound’. Elements of the ideas for this presentation informed me about subsequent work and particularly isolating ways of listening to and through water in a more domestic environment.

This film by Kaffe Mathews (see vimeo) shows another way of focusing on the under water world and its’ sounds. It was made in collaboration with Nenagh Watson on a theme of Ephemeral Animation.


Speed of sound in AIR (depending on air quality)

Speed of sound in GROUND (depending on ground type)
5,000 – 13,000 mp/s

Speed of sound in WATER (depending on water type)
1482 mp/s